When the Chase Hackley Piano Factory debuted at 2400 Lakeshore Drive in Muskegon in 1890, it was, for many in the city, a symbol of hope. A sign that, for a metropolis veering into economic despair, change was coming.
The region’s lumber industry had hit its peak in the mid-1880s, when 46 sawmills surrounded Muskegon Lake and another 16 lined White Lake. However, by the turn of the 20th century, the once booming lumber industry, which had made Muskegon home to more millionaires than anywhere else in the country, was rapidly fading. Known as the “Lumber Queen of the Midwest” a decade prior, the city had been thrust into a depression.
But, instead of Muskegon going the way of other lumber towns and sinking into obscurity, a group of local industrialists, including lumber barons Charles Hackley and Thomas Hume, formed an economic group that attracted the then Grand Rapids-based Chase Brothers piano company to Muskegon. Chase Brothers went on to become the Chase Hackley Piano Company in 1899.
The first of a string of factories to make Muskegon home, the factory helped pave the way for a new era in the city, an industrial landscape populated by names like Shaw-Walker, Continental Motors, and the Central Paper Mill, which also operated at 2400 Lakeshore Drive.
Now, 127 years after the brick behemoth first made its appearance, the factory is, once again, a sign that life in Muskegon is changing. Workers from Melching Inc. began to demolish the historic building Monday morning as part of a plan from Pure Muskegon, an LLC formed by area business leaders that now owns the property, to create a mixed-use development on the 120-acre site that once housed the piano factory, the Central Paper Mill, and, ultimately, the Sappi Fine Paper Mill.
Ken Callow, a project engineer for Melching, said the demolition is expected to end within several weeks, after which the group is expected to tear down the last Sappi smokestack on the property that runs along Muskegon Lake. The first smokestack was torn down on July 18 and the second smokestack demolition is slated to happen on Oct. 1.
“To see it all torn down and sell it for scrap, it’s hard,” said Callow, who worked at Sappi from 1982, just after he graduated from college, until it closed in 2009. “But I think Windward Pointe, Pure Muskegon, has a good vision to turn it into a mixed-use property that helps move Muskegon forward.”
‘Those are your roots’: How Muskegon residents tried to save the factory
Several months ago, a group of indiviudals — from people who grew up in homes a stone’s throw from the piano factory to an Alaskan historic preservation advocate and development consultant whose great-grandparents lived in Muskegon — formed to rally support for preserving the factory. After landing a little more than 1,600 signatures on a petition to save the piano factory, holding a rally, attempting to lobby support from city commissioners, and even buying Powerball lottery tickets in an effort to buy the building, group members were devastated by Monday’s news that demolition had begun.
“I grew up about three blocks from the piano factory, and I always had that history,” said Alicia Grennan, a Muskegon resident who spearheaded efforts to save the building, including with the “This Place Matters: Save the Chase Hackley Piano Factory Group.” “I love history, and I absolutely love Muskegon. We’ve been sad about the buildings that have been lost. To lose more feels insane to me, especially when it’s savable.”
Residents had suggested a vast array of ideas for the property, from senior living to restaurants and more.
“When I walk in these big, open spaces, I see a venue for wedding receptions,” Grennan said late last week. “It’s wide open with exposed brick and beautiful, huge wood beams. It looks like a dream to me. It’s really big, so there’s room for somebody renting office space or a coffee shop or a brew pub. People have had so many cool ideas for it. It’s right on the bike trail; it could be a way station for bikers to have a drink or rent the bikes from that location.”
Originally, Pure Muskegon, an LLC formed in 2013 by a group of area business leaders in order to purchase the Sappi site, had planned to save the piano factory and had even shelled out thousands of dollars to repair the factory’s roof in 2016. However, that changed when Pure Muskegon was informed that factory renovation work would be cost prohibitive; such construction would come with a price tag of $8 million to $10 million. While a number of residents, as well as Dorene Lorenz, a development consultant from Alaska who has worked on historic preservation projects across the country, laid out financial options for Pure Muskegon, including the possibility of millions of dollars in tax credits, the property owners said they would not be able to afford to save the factory.
“None of us at Pure Muskegon are really excited or happy to tear this down,” Wes Eklund, of Pure Muskegon, said at the end of last week. “It’s purely an economical decision. In a lot of ways, we sympathize with the people who don’t want to see the building go.”
Those who have been working to save the factory too stressed that their relationship with Pure Muskegon has not been antagonistic; a number of individuals said while they’re looking forward to a revitalized shoreline, they believe the development plan could have soared with a salvaged factory.
“Our relationship with Pure Muskegon has been very non-adversarial,” Grennan said. “We love Pure Muskegon; we think what they’re doing is fantastic. We just don’t agree with them on this. I could tell they were reluctant to see [the factory] go, too.”
Eklund, the president of Fleet Engineers in Muskegon, also said the building would have been “an anomaly on the 120 acres.”
“The issue with that building is it’s the only historical building close by,” he said. “We’re talking about a 120-acre site that’s going to be upscale. Does that building fit in with the rest of what will be on the location?”
For Lorenz, the development consultant whose great-grandparents lived in Muskegon and who has been working with the group trying to save the factory, that question is a frustrating one.
“How do you know what’s out of character when you don’t know what the rest of the development is going to be yet?” she asked.
And, for many of those advocating to save the factory, the answer to Eklund’s question has been a resounding ‘yes.’
“I’ve worked with art deco buildings in Miamo, old adobe homes in Tucson — it’s those old buildings that give a place character,” Lorenz said. “Those are your roots, your sense of self, your community. It tells the story of the community. If you’re in a community with all new buildings, that’s wonderful but you have no history. It’s history that makes life interesting. It gives you the big picture of who you are and what you’re about.”
Bob Jennings, who was born and raised in Muskegon and now splits his time between the city and Florida, also emphasized the role history plays in placemaking.
“Michigan’s historic places drive economic development, attract businesses (yes, jobs), draw tourists, attract new residents, expand the tax bases, create a sense of place, and enhance the quality of life,” Jennings said in his recent testimony to city commissioners.
“We are greatly, greatly appreciative of the Pure Muskegon investment group,” Jennings went on to say during his testimony. “…Muskegon is our home; we live here. Please do not fail to take advantage of our determination, confidence, motivation, caring, initiative, love of community, and teamwork to collaborate and assist you.”
Speaking to the Muskegon Times on Friday, Jennings said a decision to raze the factory would be a foolhardy one reminiscent of the move to demolish so many historic structures before, including the Flatiron Building, which was built in 1912 and was located at Western Avenue and Market Street, and the Occidental Hotel, an iconic structure that opened in 1868 at Western Avenue and Third Street and was torn down to make way for the Muskegon Mall in 1975.
“The actual bar was 50 feet long,” Jennings said of the Occidental Hotel. “The dining area had columns all around. They had a wonderful little soda and ice cream shop then. They knocked it down for a parking lot. No building in Muskegon is safe.”
‘A lakefront destination’: Plans for the Windward Pointe development
Currently, members of Pure Muskegon are crafting a master plan for the site and continue to speak to developers who may be interested in Windward Pointe, the name Pure Muskegon has given to the 120-acre property that Eklund said he believes will help to transform the city from an industrial name to a destination for tourists and residents alike.
“We’re seeing the shoreline of Muskegon Lake is really being turned from industrial property to something that benefits the whole community,” Eklund said. “This is an exciting time.”
As the Pure Muskegon group looks for a developer, or developers, for the site, they will be working on the master plan for the project.
“We were hoping a developer would do the whole site, or half of it, but it hasn’t materialized yet,” Eklund said. “Instead of waiting for that to happen, we’re going to do a master plan for the whole site, which will lay out the development that needs to happen.”
The master plan is expected to take approximately three months to produce, Eklund said, noting the project will include residential, commercial and community features, including single family homes, condos, and potentially a marina, a hotel, restaurants, offices, and other retail. Pure Muskegon’s website says the site could also include urban gardening, boating access, recreational opportunities, and more.
“The property’s proximity to city and neighborhood assets will provide a transformational force in the connectivity and revitalization of the city of Muskegon and the entire Muskegon Lake basin,” the website says.
“It’s going to significantly help not just the city of Muskegon but the Lakeside community,” Eklund said. “They’re going to see the property values increase by 20 to 25 percent within two years. You will see a lot of the smaller homes there be worth more money, and you’ll see those properties get gobbled up sooner than they are now.”
As of now, Eklund said he expects the housing units to be market rate.
“If there are apartments, they’ll be nice,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll have a lake view. Hopefully there will be synergy between the Muskegon Country Club [which is located across the street]. Hopefully there will be transportation to downtown. There could be a rails to trails, some type of trolley, some type of water taxi.”
As far as preserving the site’s history, Eklund noted a number of items have been given to the Muskegon Heritage Museum, including a piano and “anything of significance.”
Callow, the project engineer at Melching, added that his company is working on ways to allow members of the public access to bricks from the site.
Any construction work on the project would, at the earliest, have to happen after the winter is over, said Eklund, who told us to “watch for more news around March.” He also noted that community members will have the chance to give input on the master plan. Specific plans for community input have not yet been released.
“I can understand how there’s a lot of people who might be skeptical about what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be good,” Eklund said. “People will be very pleased. It’s not going to be like anything we have in Muskegon. It’ll be good for everybody.”